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T
here may be no one as comfortably conversant in
both early Renaissance and ancient Roman painting
techniques and enigmatic rock structures in the
Northeast as Norman Muller, who brings his conservator's
eye and researcher's mind to each domain. Muller was an
art conservator for fifty years, thirty-five of them with the
Princeton University Art Museum, from which he retired.
Out of the studio, he has long been a sought-after NEARA
member for his knowledge about significant stone sites,
especially Oley Hills in eastern Pennsylvania and the
Smith Farm in Rochester, Vermont. Muller has written
several articles on rock structure sites for NEARA Journal
and other publications, more than three dozen papers on
fourteenth-century Italian paintings and ancient Roman
painting techniques, and was the technical contributor to
The Dawn of Christian Art in Panel Painting and Icons, which
was published in 2016, along with concurrent editions in
French and Italian.
NEARA Journal editor Peter Anick had a chance sit down
with Norman Muller at the 2018 NEARA Conference in
Nashua, New Hampshire. Their conversation has been
lightly edited for length and clarity.
Peter Anick: Norm, maybe you could tell us about how you
got interested in the topic of looking at these lithic structures
in New England.
Norm Muller: Well, I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts,
from San Diego in 1975 or
76. I'm a painting conser-
vator and I got a job at the
Worcester Art Museum. While
I was there, somehow, I met
Malcolm Pearson. He was the
former owner of the Upton
chamber and also formerly
owned America's Stonehenge
in New Hampshire. We went
on some trips together. He
took me to Putney, Vermont,
to the chamber that one
enters through the roof.
When we visited, Jim Whittall
and others were doing excavations around the chamber.
Being new to all of this, I just listened.
I wasn't heavily involved in the study of Indian stonework
at that time. What I was really focused on was the study
of early Italian painting techniques, but the subject of
enigmatic stonework captured my attention. At the Putney
chamber, Whittall passed around artifacts to show me, but
I thought, "Well, they don't look like anything to me." So
I really discounted a lot of what they were saying at the
time.
Malcolm took me to the Morrill Point mound, which was
also being investigated by Jim Whittall. That's a Maritime
Archaic site that is very, very important. Jim Whittall
was excavating it without authorization. He had done
a fair amount of work, and very good work, apparently.
According to some of the archaeologists I heard from, his
approach was very sound. He was very methodical and
careful to record everything. He had also tried to date the
stones. There's a set of boulders, one after the other, in
a row at an angle that partially encloses the mound, and
Whittall dated the soil around the boulders.
Where is the mound located?
Near Newbury, Massachusetts, along the coast, near the
mouth of the Merrimack River, I believe. It's very well-
known, in fact, one of the films that Ted Timreck did
focuses on that particular mound.
They uncovered some Maritime Archaic artifacts going
back nearly five or six thousand years or more. Jim Whittall
was asked to leave the site when the owners of the prop-
erty found out what he was doing.
After meeting Jim Whittall and Malcolm, I met Barry Fell,
probably in 1977. There was a conference up in Vermont
and Barry Fell was one of the speakers there. They were
discussing the chambers in Vermont, and whether they
were ancient, or whether they were just built by the
farmers. Fell claimed that some of them contained ogham
inscriptions. I didn't attend the conference, but I have the
book of the talks that were given at the time.
Was that the Castleton Conference? [Castleton Conference
on Ancient Vermont, Castleton Vermont, 1977]
Yes.
So that's how I got started. But then I moved down to
Princeton, where I've spent the past thirty-five or six years.
I belonged to the Thoreau Society, and sometime in the
1990s, I heard from Steve Ells, a Thoreau scholar who lived
in Lincoln, Massachusetts. We corresponded by email and
Norman Muller: Seeing Stonework
through an Art Conservator's Eye
Interview, November 10, 2018
by Peter Anick and Sydney Blackwell
Norman Muller.
Photo by Peter Anick, 2018.